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Former Under 20s star finally set for Super Rugby debut after four-year wait

By Tom Vinicombe
Laghlan McWhannell. (Photo by GP O'Sullivan/Photosport)

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Three players will make their Chiefs debuts on Saturday when last year’s beaten Super Rugby Aotearoa finalists take on the Highlanders.

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Laghlan McWhannell, Josh Ioane and Emoni Narawa have all been named to start in the opening New Zealand derby of the season and all three have tread very different paths to get to this point.

McWhannell, who represented the New Zealand Under 20s side back in 2018, has been a fully-contracted player with the Chiefs since 2019 but a horror run of injuries have prevented the big lock from ever taking the field. Even at NPC level, McWhannell has only managed just over 20 appearances for Waikato, despite earning his first cap in 2017.

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On the other end of the spectrum, Ioane should hit a half-century of Super Rugby caps this season and made his test debut in 2019 but has shifted north from the Highlanders in the quest to earn more minutes at No 10 after ceding the jersey to Mitch Hunt throughout much of last year.

Narawa, meanwhile, lies somewhere in the middle, having debuted for the Blues last season but struggled to clock up much game time thanks to the Auckland side’s embarrassment of riches in the outside backs.

Ioane has headed off Bryn Gatland to start at first five this weekend and Narawa has been selected ahead of the likes of Chase Tiatia, Shaun Stevenson and Etene Nanai-Seturo at fullback and both players could pencil their names in to the first-choice starting XV for the season ahead with big performances against the Highlanders, even though the competition is fierce.

Assistant coach David Hill said there were “a number of tough decision” made at the selection table ahead of the Chiefs’ first game of the campaign.

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“Felt like Brynner and [Ioane] have both stated a pretty strong case to start,” the former All Blacks first five said of his team’s options at No 10. ” We felt that Josh had done well in the last pre-season game so he gets the nod this time and Bryn’s on the bench.

“We know we’ve got two quality 10s. If they don’t perform, the other guy will be ready to go and step in. We’re happy with [Ioane’s] progress, happy with his combinations with the centres and the 9s and just looking forward to watching him go.”

While Ioane is also an option in the No 15 jersey, where he’s spent plenty of time for the Highlanders over the past two years, Hill indicated that they were happy with their options at the back and that Ioane was first and foremost focussed on getting closer to the action.

 

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“He’s made it clear he wants to come here and play first five,” Hill said. “He’s a versatile player so if injuries or a situation arises where he gets thrown back to 15, he can do that. But he’s motivated and made it pretty clear first five is his focus so we’ll just let him go for that and we’ve got a couple of other options at 15 as well.

“Emoni played a lot of his earlier rugby at 15 and so myself and Clayton had some dealings with him at Bay of Plenty and he’s played Under 19 Bay of Plenty in that position. He’s another versatile guy who’s just as good on the wing but felt he was the right man for the job this week. We know we have Chase and a couple of other options there to fill in there as well. We’re excited for him, his debut for the Chiefs.”

McWhannell is in a slightly different situation. Although he’s older than Tupou Vaa’i, Josh Lord and Naitoa Ah Kuoi, the former two have already kick-started their All Blacks careers and the latter has been one of the Chiefs’ best and most consistent forwards over the past two seasons while McWhannell has been sidelined. Still, that doesn’t mean that trio are guaranteed to start the season ahead in the pecking order, with Vaa’i and Lord getting a rest this weekend and McWhannell partnering Brodie Retallick.

“[McWhannell] has had to wait a while. He’s been in and around the squad and dealt with some injuries so it’s his debut as well so amazing, great reward for him for his perseverance, his commitment to his rehab and everything he’s done,” Hill said of the 23-year-old. “He’s a talented young player who’s got a bit future and a good physical presence. He showed that last week, doesn’t mind the contact.

“We’ve got a few more [second-rowers] there. We’re pretty blessed in the locking space at the moment so expect them to go out and show us their strengths and we’ll see how we go. We’ve got two All Black locks sitting in the grandstand this week so pretty fortunate there.”

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The other All Black left out of the matchday 23 for Saturday’s fixture is midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown, although Hill indicated he – and Vaa’i, who was also deemed ‘unavailable’ this week – would likely be available for next weekend’s clash with Moana Pasifika.

“They could have played at a push,” he said. “They’re just some niggles that they’ve got but again, because of the depth we have at locks and at centres, we felt there was no need to rush them and force them into playing when they weren’t at 100 [per cent].

“They’ve been training fully, doing everything, but it was decision probably more [about] it’s going to be a long year … They’ll rip into training this afternoon and they’ll be ready to go for our next game.”

The Chiefs’ match with the Highlanders kicks off at 4:35pm NZT from Wakatipu Rugby Club in Queenstown.

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